Toby Altman is the author of Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017) and five chapbooks, including recently Security Theater (Present Tense Pamphlets, 2016). His poems can be found in Crazyhorse, Jubilat, Lana Turner, and other journals and anthologies.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook, Life of Richard, was published in a beautiful accordion book, by my friend and collaborator, Liana Katz. It was the first title for a press we started together, Damask Press. It felt like a piece of my body—a scrap of flesh that had been magically liberated from my body. I think of that text as, in a way, the model for Arcadia, Indiana, my current book. Like Arcadia, it centers on the sonnet (Life of Richard is 7 nonce sonnets), using the form to push the limits of syntax. Like my current book, it’s about the weight of history, the weight and persistence of violence. Although each of my projects look very different, they are all concerned with that weight: they ask, insistently, how can we make the future possible? Or, more precisely, how can the future be different from the present—rather than an intensification of its violence and inequity?
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing poetry because my dad started writing poetry. I’m not sure why he did—he’s a photographer by vocation, but for a few years when I was a teenager, he became a passionate and dedicated writer of poems. We used to go to open mics together; I’d read adolescent imitations of the beats and he’d read intricate formal poems about marriage and desire. We were, to say the least, an odd pair. I’m very grateful to the poets I met then—poets like Nina Corwin and John Starr, who encouraged and welcomed me, naïve as I was. They gave me the confidence to imagine a life in poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I’ve talked about this before, but Arcadia, Indiana began as a sonnet sequence—a collaborative sonnet sequence between my wife and I called, um, Sonnets to Orifice. But I wanted to put more stuff on the page, to complicate the sonnet’s closure and limitation. The result: a divided page, riven or cloven. Each of the pages in Arcadia, Indiana has a sonnet on the left side and commentary, in prose or verse, on the right. The page itself becomes a space of performance, of conflict. The text itself grew out of that conflict: it emerges from material disturbance and indeterminacy. I describe this at length because it seems representative of my process. I don’t just write poems, I design a page-scape, an architectural happening. My projects emerge and take their shape from the materiality of the page.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I find the idea of the individual lyric somewhat terrifying. I compose on the level of the book or the chapbook—and I find the demands of composing at that level productive, rather than constraining. The demands of a book project carry me into dark and unexpected places; I write poems that otherwise would remain unwritten.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love performance, but I hate the Poetry Reading. You know what I mean: twenty folding chairs in a gallery or a bar; three readers, in front of a microphone, clearing their throats and making jokes. I think the reading should be more than a chance to present a written artifact: the reading should derange writing, should challenge the primacy of writing. It should be an opportunity to transform the text into a score for performance—an object which is incomplete without the participation of its readers, their bodies on stage.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
In my criticism, I think about the homogeneity of the present: the way that capitalism tends to suppress temporal, historical difference. How can poetry resist that kind of temporal homogeneity? How can poets find ways to fracture the present and bring shards of the past into the now? These questions seem pressing to me, crucially so: the new, the unexpected, the avant-garde requires such temporal difference as the resistance against which it grinds.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher notes a “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Let’s say you agree. Doesn’t that mean that utopia is the task of the poet? That our job is to leap beyond the epistemic and economic boundaries of our world and imagine something soft, nourishing, new? Let’s say that’s one thing poetry is uniquely qualified to do—though not the only thing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For this book, I was lucky to work with Tyler Crumrine, the editor and founder of Plays Inverse. Lucky because Tyler is an exceptionally sensitive and detailed editor. He has a way of asking for small changes that transform a project. Tyler comes from a theater background, so he’s used to thinking about texts collaboratively. That’s refreshing. I wish more poets thought of their works in a collaborative frame—as part of a dynamic series of interactions that continue long after “the” poem is published.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In her interview with Rachel Zucker for Commonplace, Claudia Rankine says (I’m paraphrasing) that research is the real heart of writing: that writing acquires its fragrance, its purpose, through its contact with an, the, archive. I find that refreshing, even liberating—since we are so often told that good writing is pure and unmediated; that our task as poets is to discover “our” voices. No. Our task is to surrender to the archive.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays to performance to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I understand critical and creative writing to be ways of knowing and thinking, ways of producing knowledge. I think of so-called “creative” writing as its own form of research—and I often take the discoveries I make in poetry into my criticism, using the apparatus of scholarship to expand and to give language to things I find out in poems.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I lead an absurdly regulated, routinized life—by choice. I get up at the same time, walk the dog at the same time, eat the same thing for breakfast. It’s how I keep the void at bay. Still, my writing is defiantly unroutinized. I keep no regular hours. I go months without doing much writing, and then I go months where I work obsessively on projects, at all hours.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I want to resist romantic ideas of inspiration. I don’t think that poems descend from the air, breath of the muses, flowing unpredictably around the poet. That’s not the way it works for me, anyway. My work comes from research, from reading, from engaging with other texts. When I feel inspiration waning, my habit is to start reading. I read omnivorously and constantly—I try to find books that challenge my understanding of what’s possible in writing. I hope to be transformed, to be split, by books. I want books to destroy me—and in that way, to clear space for freshness and possibility.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I will admit to being somewhat detached from scent. I have a poor sense of smell. I respond only to strong smells: not the habitual fragrances, but the occasional bursts of scent that rupture the smell-scape of a place. The compost bucket after a week on vacation. My sweatshirt after a couple of runs. An aerosolized pepper.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’ve mentioned architecture above, and I’ll talk about it more below. Poets and architects have, in some ways, similar tasks: for instance, they are both charged with making spaces for dwelling. Another example: both poems and buildings are made by the people who use them. Part of the challenge of designing a building or writing a poem: you have to surrender control. You need to build something which exceeds your intentions, which contains pores and passages, through which other people can take hold of and transform your creation.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I recommend W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz to pretty much everyone I meet. I’ve never read a book that better describes my own condition, as a secular, diasporic Jew. I’ve tried to articulate why before—and I always fail. In part, I think because we think of identity in terms of presence: the persistence of tradition, the continuity of culture. I experience Judaism as absence: an utter aporia, a gulf. Sebald describes what it’s like to live with that gulf: to belong to something and yet have no meaningful connection to it.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to write a city plan, perhaps in collaboration with an urban planner. I’d like to see poetry as a force that might actively shape the world—if only by imagining possibilities that exceed the reasonable, the rational, and the instrumental. What might a city designed by a poet look like? A city designed by someone unrestrained by the limitations of neoliberalism? A liquid city, a city made of sharp grass, a city so small it fits inside a poet’s mouth.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I played music before I went to graduate school, but honestly I’m not cool enough for a career as a musician. I don’t like staying up late. Poetry feels like the only real option, in part because a career in poetry contains so many other careers. To be a poet, one must be an expert in economics, architecture, theory, criticism, ecology, nuclear proliferation, mass extinction. The purview of the poet is virtually limitless and thus the work is constantly expanding, shifting, incomplete.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Someone asked me recently if I enjoy writing. Um, no. For me, writing is a compulsion. There was never really any other option. It’s something I would do, obsessively, no matter what. I feel very lucky to have made a life as a writer—to be part of a community of writers whose work I admire intensely. If I had another job, or another group of friends, I feel that I would be at war with myself and with the world around me.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m currently reading Der Nister’s great Yiddish novel, The Family Mashber—a kind of Jewish version of the The Brothers Karamazov. It’s a beautiful novel, richly evocative of 19th century Jewish life in Eastern Europe—and, as far as I can tell, one of his few works to be translated into English. In poetry, I finally read Itō Hiromi’s Wild Grass on the Riverside, published in amazing translation by Jeffrey Angles by Action Books. An epic of contemporary displacement and environment devastation.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a new manuscript, Discipline Park. The book is about the demolition of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. The building was a landmark of architectural brutalism. It was also my birthplace. It was torn down by Northwestern—a university where I worked for many years. I took this as a brutal allegory of neoliberalism: the way it makes us draw sustenance from institutions that destroy our habitats and histories. The book obsessively documents the demolition of Prentice, returning to it over and over again. But it also tries to trace the residues of utopian possibility in our moment—even as neoliberalism tries to root them out. Goldberg’s architecture and urbanism might be one such utopian trace. As the book progressed, I found myself falling in love with Goldberg, visiting his surviving buildings and his archive, trying to raise his spirit into the present.